Top U.S. Academic Group Rejects Motion for Boycott of Israel

Resolution fails to pass 113 to 79. Decision in favor of boycott could have dealt blow to some Israeli academics, students across U.S. and to cooperation with Israeli institutions.

A Pro-Palestinian protester holds a placard reading "BDS" during a gathering on the sidelines of a beach event celebrating Tel Aviv, Paris, August 13, 2015.
AFP

PHILADELPHIA - The U.S. Modern Language Association on Saturday rejected a resolution calling for an academic boycott of Israel. 

One-hundred and thirteen members of the delegate assembly voted against it while 79 voted in favor.

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The resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions.

The four-day MLA convention underway in Philadelphia, which attracts thousands of scholars, is the biggest and most important annual humanities event in North America. A decision in favor of a boycott could have dealt a significant blow to Israeli academics and students working in departments of language, literature and related fields across the U.S., as well as to collaborations and research involving Israeli academic institutions. 

The resolution was proposed by a group called MLA Members for Justice in Palestine. A decision on the initiative has been postponed for several years.

The vote followed a dramatic discussion. Rebecca Comay, the author of the boycott proposal, told the audience that "Palestinians are stripped of the rights we ourselves take for granted."

One member arguing against the boycott said: "It's not only racism and anti-Semitism, it smacks of McCarthyism." Another argued that it is "the same as boycotting those in this room for actions of Cheney and Bush."

Gabriel Brahm, of Northern Michigan University, said: "Institutions are like Soylent Green in the old  Charlton Heston movie, they're made of people. You can't target the institutions of a nation and not discriminate on the basis of nationality. That is certainly not our mission as MLA members, scholars or humanists."

Peter C. Herman, a San Diego University professor who opposes the initiative, told Haaretz: “A vote against the boycott is not a vote for the Netanyahu government. However, this boycott targets exactly the people who speak for dissent." 

In addition to rejecting the Israel boycott resolution, the 300 members of the MLA's delegate assembly adopted a resolution to oppose all boycotts, and voted to indefinitely postpone a motion to condemn the suppression of academic freedom in Palestinian universities in Gaza and the West Bank.

Pulitzer-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen was in favor of the boycott, as were renowned philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler and Israeli Talmud scholar Daniel Boyarin.

Israeli scholars opposing the boycott released a plea to MLA members to reject the resolution. 

The convention, established in 1884, is the most important annual event for scholars of languages. In addition to hundreds of panels that take place at the conference, American universities hold interviews for teaching positions at the conference, with graduate students' careers hanging in the balance. 

This piece has been corrected from an earlier version that incorrectly stated that MLA President Anthony Appiah supported the boycott.